Celina Carvajal Kinky Boots
by Beth Herstein
Now, Carvajal is in the Harvey Fierstein/Cyndi Lauper collaboration Kinky Boots, which has been playing to enthusiastic audiences in advance of its April 4 opening. Carvajal plays Nicola, the fiancée of Charlie (American Idiot's Stark Sands), who's torn between an exciting new life in London with Nicola and one in Northampton, where he has the chance to turn his father's failing shoe factory into a success.
Recently, I chatted with Carvajal during a break between her rehearsals and her performance that night. She was warm, funny, and generous with her time. Our conversation was filled with asides and laughter.
Beth Herstein: You were a ballerina since you were really young and you also sang for Pope John Paul II.
Celina Carvajal: Yes. I grew up in a family full of artists. My dad was a choreographer, and my mother was a prima ballerina. Basically I grew up in the ballet world. When I was a baby I was backstage at the opera house because my mother was one of the core ballet dancers there. So, I was raised amongst artists. When I was seven, my dad choreographed a piece that was to be presented to the Pope in 1987, at Candlestick Park ... My sister was singing with the girls' chorus for the Pope. I was at rehearsal with my family, and one of the little kids couldn't do it. They needed a little kid who could sing, so they just put me out there.
BH: You were so young. Were you able to appreciate what was going on?
CC: I didn't know what was going on! I was just thinking, "What's going on? Everybody's looking at me!"
BH: You got a part in Cats right out of high school. I imagine your parents, as artists, knew how important it is to pursue your dreams and gave you their blessing.
CC: They were supportive. What was interesting was that, when I was 12, I'd been dancing for 10 years, professionally training to be a ballerina. But then my sister started doing musical theater and I was totally enthralled. I wanted to be that, I wanted to do what she was doing. So I quit my path, being a prima ballerina, at 12. Even though I still danced in a company I was more focused on theater. Then, after high school, the touring company of Cats was in town. A friend of mine told me that they were auditioning in around an hour. I was 17I just ran over there and auditioned. A few months later they called me. So, anything's possible if you just put yourself out there. A lot of people are too afraid of failing, but in order to succeed you have to fail more. If you don't conquer that fear, you're never going to get anywhere. Also, once you have a couple failures in your pocket, you understand yourself a little more ... If you tell me "no," I'm going to tell you "Yes I can."
BH: You've been in several Broadway shows. Among other things, you were in Dracula. I interviewed Stephen McKinley Henderson when he did a show with LAByrinth. He is such an interesting man.
CC: He is a cool guy. That process was very difficult for all of us, though. Being involved in a new show, you get the vibe of where it's going to go. I found it extremely stressful, everyone was so stressed out about the show working. I remember they pushed back previews because our tech was taking so long. That stress kind of rubs off on the cast, and the stress of the cast rubs off on the audience ... It's an interesting thing I saw with a couple of shows I've been in. With Kinky Boots, we're not stressed. Everything comes from the heart. You feel it from the stage. You see it on their faces. It's exciting to be in a show that can affect an audience in that way. The show's like soul food.
CC: He's been great. I didn't know what really to expect. I saw him in American Idiot and I was shocked to meet him. When I saw him in that show he was real buff, and he had all these tattoos and his head was shaved, and he was so hot! I met him for the show, and he's still a good looking guy but it's such a big transformation. But it's a perfect transformation because it's right for the role. He looks totally like an English guy who grew up in Northampton. In American Idiot you completely believed he was a shaved army guy. He's kind of a chameleon.
BH: You've worked with Billy Porter before. I saw you both in Radiant Baby.
CC: You did! I loved that show. It just came at the wrong time, just around the time we went to war with Iraq. Everyone wanted to go see 42nd Street, or things that would get them out of their head space. No one wanted to see a show about a gay man [Keith Haring] who died of AIDS. Although the timing was an issue, I really loved it. It was the same feeling I have doing this show, just that loveeveryone absolutely loved everything about it. I actually saw Stuart [Ross] who wrote the show. He came to see Kinky Boots. I hadn't seen him in a long time, and it was so nice to see him.
BH: What has it been like working with Billy Porter again?
CC: I did this table read with Harvey Fierstein, and it was great. He played Charlie [because Starks Sands wasn't available for the read]. That was one of my favorite moments, sitting and having a fight with Harvey Fierstein as my fiancé. Billy came in for that reading, and I remember thinking, "Oh my God, he's so perfect." This role [feels like it was] written for Billy Porter. There's no other role that he should be playing. It's totally, absolutely him.
BH: It's great too, because he's so talented and he's been around for a while. He's successful and he's been acclaimed for his work, but this role shoves him into the spotlight.
CC: It's really well deserved. He's wonderful in this show.
BH: What have you learned doing Kinky Boots that you hadn't known before?
CC: I learned that I'm an actress. I never considered myself that great of an actor. When people asked me, "What do you do?" I always would saybefore I had my tonsils removed, pre-tonsillectomy, I would say, "I'm a dancer/singer/actor." Then, I would say, I'm a singer/dancer/actor. Now, I think they're all pretty on par with each other. I sing very little in this show. My job is an acting role. It's a delicate balance [in the role] between being a human being and being one note. I have very little time to establish the character in the show. I have to do it in a couple of lines, and it has really sharpened my abilities. I feel much more confident out there"I am an actor!"
BH: Has the cast been together since you did the show in Chicago?
CC: We all did the workshop prior to Chicago together, except for two or three people. So, we've been a cast for over a year. Some of us, like me and Annaleigh [Ashford], have been doing it for two-and-a-half or three years. There's something very special about that. In some shows, they recast and recast, looking for the perfect people. With this show, and I'm so lucky, everything just clicked into place. The cast really clicked.
BH: I also listened to some clips of your band The Deafening. Are you still actively working with the band?
CC: Yes. We just released our first full length album. Finally, figuring out our sound, so we'd spent the last year in the studio. We also have our first music video online, which is a parody of an exorcism. It is really fun. We don't take ourselves seriously; we do it all for the music and the love of performing and being in a rock band. The music is retro, it sounds a lot like '80s hard rock with a little bit of Led Zeppelin in there ... I always was a musical theater singer when I was young. I joined my band in 2006. I had just gotten my tonsils out. A big moment in my life.
BH: You had that done as an adult.
CC: Yeah, mine were taken out when I was 26. They were huge! It kind of changed my life completely, because my voice changed and at the time I had just joined this band. It was good because it forced me to sing in ways other than musical theater and classical. It forced me to find the grittiness and the Janis Joplin stuff, in a way that I wouldn't hurt my voice, so that I could perform for an hour and still be fine. So, I'm really grateful for that, and for my band. It made me much more of a diverse performer and singer.
Right now I'm working on an album with a famous songwriter and producer, Desmond Child. I'm really excited about that.
BH: Is that a solo album?
CC: Yes. It would be under my alter ego's name, Lena Hall [which she also uses in The Deafening]. It's my name shortenedCelina, to Lena, and Hall is part of Carvajaljust spelled a little differently. So I'm working with Desmond Child on my Lena Hall project.
BH: When you've described Nicola, whom you play in Kinky Boots, you talk about her as the antagonist but not a bad person. I've noticed that often with actors, even those who play characters who aren't all that sympathetic, they latch onto and relate to some aspect of their character, and humanize the part.
CC: Absolutely, because if you can't humanize your own character you aren't really doing your job. In order to play a person, there has to be something there that's in you. I feel like her strength in what she wants is very much who I am. I will do what I need to do in order to make what I want become a reality. I'm not going to do anything horrible, and she doesn't actually do anything horrible. If you took her story line and followed it instead of the story of Charlie and the factory workers, you'd side with her a little bit. But, I put it like this: everyone in the audience, everyone in the factory, including Lola, has the same beliefs. I am the one person who comes in and has a different belief system. That doesn't make me a bad person, it just means that I want something completely different than what everyone else wants. It would be like a Republican coming to the Democrat Convention.
BH: You mentioned following her story line. She tries to keep in touch with Charlie, and can't reach him, and he's making life decisions that affects them both but leaving her out of them.
CC: Exactly. He wanted to marry her, and she's just going on with what she thought he wanted. But, he keeps making life decisions that don't involve her. He promised her forever, and she really loves him. That's one thing I point out about my character that I love. She loves him so much, and wants them to have a really happy life. He doesn't love her back in the same way. He doesn't know what he's doing. Also, she's strong and she doesn't want to change her view of the future of her life. She doesn't want to change what she wants, and what she thought he wanted as well.
BH: In one interview you said that when you auditioned for Kinky Boots, you wanted to come back to Broadway your own way, and get back to loving the job. What happened that made you feel less happy with it?
CC: I [had some experiences] that were very stressfulwhere I felt like a piece of furniture and not like a creative person, or experienced [other things] that really frustrated me. I wasn't loving being on Broadway, which was ridiculous. It's this huge dream for so many people, and it only happens to a limited few, and I wasn't enjoying it. I felt like I was taking away the opportunity from others who were dying to be there. I wanted to come back on my own terms.
I took a hiatus and pursued only what I wanted to do. Then I found this show. It's just it. I may be a tiny piece of the Kinky Boots puzzle, but I love it. I don't feel like I'm taking a job away from someone who would appreciate it more. I'm happy and thrilled to be here.
Kinky Boots now at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street (Between 8th and 9th Avenues). For performance and ticket information, visit Telecharge.com.
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